Spotlight: Ronald Wright

D'où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous?

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

These are the questions posed by painter Paul Gauguin that inspired the mind of Ronald Wright, a Canadian historian and author. The questions draw our focus to the past, while making sure we are aware of our future. Ronald Wright's book A Short History of Progress looks to discuss these questions by looking at past civilizations, in order to determine what led to their demise. For a book about history, it is very future-focused. When you read Wright's work, the implications of his analysis become obvious- we don't exactly know where we're going. The good news is that we have plenty of past experience to learn from.

A Short History of Progress is a compelling book because it mixes information and analysis with Ronald Wright's almost conversational and familiar tone. Reading about the rise and fall of past civilizations may sound anything but compelling to some people, but there is a very real sense of narrative and voice, something rare and admirable in non-fiction. It was published in 2004 as part of the CBC Massey Lectures series, and was originally delivered as a collection of five speeches.

I got the chance to talk with him over the past month to discuss Progress, his work in both fiction and non--fiction, and what the future holds for us:


What was your inspiration for writing it/giving these lectures?

 I was walking in the ancient Maya ruins of Tikal, a great stone city smothered by the Guatemalan jungle for a thousand years, and I began to wonder what might bring our civilization down like that- and, having taken archaeology at university, what ruins we might leave behind us.  Those thoughts led me to write my 1997 dystopian novel A Scientific Romance.  Later, when I was asked to give the CBC Massey Lectures, I decided to tackle the same subject as nonfiction.

When you read 'Progress', you feel as if you have absorbed an incredible amount of information. How do you write so that serious topics are not only approachable, but entertaining and compelling?

 I'd love to take the credit here, but much of it should go to the radio lecture format of the CBC Massey Lectures, which forced me to be brief.  I was allowed only 5 radio hours, or 35,000 words, which is only a half or even a third of a typical book length.  I also knew, from doing previous documentaries, that  for radio everything must be said in a straightforward and conversational way.  Listeners, unlike readers, cannot turn back a few pages to check something.  Of course in the book version I had more leeway, but instead of adding fat I put the elaborations and tough cuts in the endnotes along with the sources.

Does your writing approach differ between fiction and non-fiction projects? 

Not that much.  With nonfiction, obviously, one has a duty to the facts.  In fiction- the kind I do, anyway- the great challenge is to find the right blend of story and character.  But I'm especially drawn to books that do both: to artistry in nonfiction, and to novels of ideas.  The first duty of all writers (except those who write only for themselves) is to their readers.  And that means making the story live, making the journey from one mind to another as illuminating, satisfying, and entertaining as it can be.  

The book talks about three general problems: progress traps, resource depletion, and resistance to change. Which of these do you think is most relevant in our present society?

Worryingly for us they are all relevant and interlinked.  Progress traps- a term I came up with to describe seductive short-term successes  that lead to disaster in the long run- are very hard to foresee when we are dazzled by their initial promise.   No society has ever undergone such rapid technological change as ours over the past hundred years or so, yet our thought and behaviour patterns are still dominated by the old Victorian belief that progress is both good and infinite.  I think our addiction to the thrill of the new is in fact archaic, a hangover from an earlier stage of the Industrial Revolution when the world seemed big enough to allow a fantasy of endless growth.  

Within living memory, as recently as the 1920s, there were only 2 billion people on Earth.  Now there are 7 billion, and 2 billion happens to be the number living in dire poverty --on less than $1.50 a day.  Meanwhile the top 2 billion people are each consuming about 50 times more per head than those on the bottom.  That's not progress, is it?  No wonder we see resources being depleted as we watch, the most serious losses being in water, farmland, woodland, and destruction of the natural ecosystems that hold up our world.  I'm less worried about oil and gas running out, so long as we steadily move to other forms of energy --one of the most promising of which is simply using less --rather than tearing up this planet in a frenzied search for ever-dirtier and ever-riskier pockets of carbon. 

As someone once said, progress would be fine if only it would stop.  Pick a metaphor:  call it a treadmill that spins faster and faster so you can't get off; or call it an addiction, holding out salvation with just one more fix, and one more....  

We do not need new inventions or new technologies.  I'm citing the eminent physicist Sir Martin Rees here, the President of the Royal Society.  He makes the point that we already have the tools we need to set things right, to make civilization sustainable.  What's lacking is political will.  And political will is hard to muster when we are bombarded by endless distractions and propaganda to consume.  The mad love affair with progress is still on, but I think we are starting to see the high costs and diminishing returns, and so starting to wake up.   

Progress' is guided by three questions posed by painter Paul Gauguin. In the final chapter, you talk about where we as a species are headed, and refer to our awareness of past failures as our best hope for future success. Since the book's release, do you think we have seen positive change?

I see some grounds for hope.  First, more and more people of all ages and most political persuasions are seeing that we can't go on as we are.  Second, the growth rate of the population is slowing; we may top out at about 9 billion in 2050.  Third, most governments around the world know that we must deal with climate change and other forms of pollution and reckless consumption without delay.  On the downside, North America is falling behind, becoming a dinosaur --especially Canada under Harper.  Canada is now a spoiler and a villain on the world stage, promoting the short-term interests of Big Oil over the long-term interests of all future generations.  Yet human beings can change their ways quite suddenly once they wake up.  The collapse of the Communist Bloc thirty years ago is an example:  it happened unexpectedly, quickly, and largely peacefully.  So I have not written off our capacity for change.  I think we are in for a very rough ride this century, but I'm not saying doom is inevitable. Giving in to despair is always a self-fulfilling prophecy.  


A Short History of Progress was the bestselling book in the CBC Massey Lectures series, which has been in publication for over fifty years. It won the Libris Award for non-fiction book of the year upon publication.

Wright is the author of nine books, and is currently at work on a novel based on the Spanish invasion of Peru, set in 1530. It is set to be published by Penguin in 2015.

You can find him at

Be sure to check back for more interviews in the Spotlight series. 

Painting by Paul Gauguin "  Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" Courtesy of Wikipedia

Painting by Paul Gauguin "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?" Courtesy of Wikipedia

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